Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Arts Panel is committed to keeping culture strong.

The former ATSIA Board, now the ATSIA Panel assists Indigenous people to claim, control and enhance their cultural inheritance by funding the development and promotion of traditional and contemporary arts practices ā€“ and new forms of cultural expression ā€“ by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who practice any artform and live in urban, regional and remote areas.

Living culture

The Australia Council regards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as living forces, with their own strengths and influences, not simply remnants of the past. It aims to make these cultures part of the contemporary experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - and a source of pride for all Australians.

Funding Indigenous arts

The Panel encourages applications that are culturally appropriate and innovative, have excelllent artistic outcomes, and which produce strategic results that promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts at local, state and territory levels, as well as nationally and internationally.

The Panel gives priority to applications that place Indigenous personnel in key positions and requires applicants to use accepted industry standards for remuneration in proposed projects. Non-Indigenous organisations applying to the panel need to demonstrate clear evidence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander control, participation and support throughout the project.

The Panel targets its funding support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and communities and encourages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to seek grants offered by the other boards of the Australia Council.

Adherence to the Australia Council's Indigenous protocol guides is a condition of funding from the Panel. There are five guides, each covering a different artform - song, new media, performing, visual and writing - which are available in hard copy (phone 1800 226 912) or online.

Definition of identity

The Australia Council definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity combines three elements: descent, identification and acceptance. An Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander is defined as someone who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identifies as an Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such in the community where he or she lives or comes from.

Strategic work

Since 2005, the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board has made important changes to the Indigenous arts landscape by supporting artists and protecting their artistic works. These changes evolved from recommendations of the Creating Pathways conference for dance (2005), the Senate Inquiry into Indigenous visual arts (2006), Making Solid Ground: Indigenous infrastructure and key organisations review (2008), the development of the Indigenous Australian Commercial Code of Conduct for the visual arts (2009), Song Cycles: An audit of support infrastructure for Indigenous music in Australia (2010), Indigenous Cultural Festivals: evaluating impact on community health and well-being (2010) and the National Indigenous Theatre Forum (2010), to name a few.

The strategic initiatives managed by the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board from 2005/6 to 2010/11 have involved some 37 industry partnerships and addressed the key areas of artist careers, international showcasing, Indigenous cultural and intellectual property and sector development in the disciplines of music, dance and festivals.


This activity has resulted in the Deadly Funny! Indigenous comedy showcase at the Melbourne International Comedy festival (held annually), theIndigenous Australian Commercial Code of Conduct for the visual arts, the Culture Warriors exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, the annual Australasian World Music Expo, the establishment of Blak Dance, profiling of Indigenous musicians by Cicada, the Accelerate Indigenous Cultural Leadership program (in partnership with the British Council), the formation of the Coalition of Indigenous Festivals and the peak body for Indigenous arts, the national Indigenous Arts and Culture Authority.

Current priorities

The former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board's five priority areas for 2010-2011 are:

  • coordinate and engage a range of partnerships to increase creative and cultural leadership opportunities for Indigenous artists, arts workers and organisations
  • develop and implement collaborative cross council strategies for emerging, mid-career and established Indigenous artists and arts workers
  • explore and promote the use of digital media to increase engagement of Indigenous artists and to facilitate their creative works to wider audiences
  • identify and promote the participation of Indigenous artists and organisations in programs
  • review and maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of divisional operations.

Attitudes to Indigenous arts

The appreciation and enjoyment of Indigenous arts by Australian and international audiences is increasing. Recent Australia Council arts participation research shows that, of those who had attended visual arts and crafts events or theatre, dance or music performances in the past 12 months, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) had been to arts created or performed by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artists.

Attitudes to Indigenous arts are increasingly positive, signalling a great opportunity to grow the Indigenous art audience across Australia. There is a direct relationship between attitudes to Indigenous arts and attendance, with those who had attended an Indigenous arts activity having significantly stronger and more positive interest than others.

The increase of Indigenous cultural venues, sites and events has played a significant part in attracting international visitors who wish to experience Australian culture. Increased programming of Indigenous arts in Australian cultural venues also increases wider audience engagement and participation, with these visitors spending more dollars than their counterparts who do not attend Indigenous venues, sites or events. This is important for the Australian economy and for artistsā€™ incomes.

Cultural industries

While Australian cultural industries are substantial and growing, the return to artists for their creative work is small and Indigenous practitioners are very likely to receive much less than the average artist. At the same time, the value of Indigenous arts activity to individuals, families and communities is significant culturally, socially and economically - and its potential is significant in all communities. Recent research by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and the Telstra Foundation about the role of Indigenous festivals highlights not only economic benefits, but improved well-being as people reported increased cultural pride and self-esteem, a sense of inclusion, belonging and a strong cultural identity.

Demographic profile

As well as supporting excellence in the development and practice of Indigenous arts, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Panel recognises the impact of the arts in the wider community, especially since Indigenous people remain the most disadvantaged group within Australian society, unable to exercise and enjoy basic rights that other Australians take for granted.

The Indigenous population is relatively young, with 65 per cent of the total Indigenous population under 25 years of age and of that cohort, 40 per cent being under the age of 15. Of the total Indigenous population, three per cent are over 65. The transmission of cultural knowledge and cultural identity are paramount, due to the loss of elders and the acculturation of younger people in this socio-cultural environment.

Indigenous arts have contributed to social inclusion, well-being, education, health and Closing the Gap by contributing directly to five of the seven 'building-blocks' identified in that strategy, namely: education, safe communities, health and well-being (particularly mental health), economic participation and leadership.

Cultural ownership

The Panel is concerned about the appropriation of traditional imagery and design. In seeking to protect copyright and cultural ownership, the Panel strongly urges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to develop their own designs, or only use designs in keeping with their specific cultural identity.

See the Australia Council's Indigenous protocol guides for further information.

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